REVIEW: Parallels Desktop 8 For Mac

The rise of BYOD isn’t just about bringing smartphones and tablets into work. The developers of Parallels Desktop virtualisation software for Macs recently told us that they are seeing increased sales into the corporate market as a result of staff bringing their own Macs—primarily MacBook laptops—into what was previously a Windows-only office environment.

Of course, there is a Mac version of Microsoft Office that includes Word, Excel and Outlook, but there are several differences between the versions―including the absence of Access and OneNote on the Mac―not to mention any number of other Windows applications that have never been released for the Mac. Consequently, there’s a growing market for virtualisation software such as Parallels Desktop that allows Mac users to run key Windows programs used by their businesses.

Great integration

Parallels Desktop 8 follows the recent release of Apple’s Mountain Lion and continues the task of making Mac and Windows programs works more smoothly together. Some Web sites don’t work very well with Apple’s Safari browser, so Parallels Desktop adds a new ‘Open In IE’ button to the main toolbar in Safari that allows you to quickly open the current URL in Internet Explorer.

If you’re using Outlook for Windows on your Mac you can drag a file from the Mac desktop onto the Outlook icon in the Mac’s Dock in order to launch Outlook and automatically attach that file to a new e-mail. The various notifications and messages that pop up from the Windows Taskbar can now be viewed in the Notification Centre on the Mac desktop, and Parallels Desktop even allows you to use Mountain Lion’s Dictation feature with Windows programs. Dictation still strikes us as a bit of a gimmick, but the fact that Parallels has gone to such lengths to merge these elements of the Mac and Windows operating systems is impressive.

Windows 8

The company has even made efforts to integrate Windows 8. The Parallels Wizard, which guides you through the process of creating a Windows virtual machine, includes an option to download the Windows 8 Preview and install it as a virtual machine―which, in our opinion, is a far better way of exploring Windows 8 than installing it on an actual PC.

The ‘Coherence’ mode in Parallels, which allows you to run individual Windows programs directly on the Mac desktop without seeing the Windows desktop at all, now provides a full-screen view of the tiled Windows 8 Start menu (the interface formerly known as ‘Metro’). And, remarkably, the Windows 8 Start menu can display both Mac and Windows apps, allowing you to launch Mac apps from within Windows.

There are some under-the-bonnet technical improvements too. If you have multiple virtual machines on your Mac―we have Windows XP, Windows 7 and Windows 8 Preview on our office iMac (we don’t talk about Vista)―the program can now provide information about the CPU performance and the amount of RAM being used by each virtual machine. And, with the increased adoption of smaller SSD drives, Parallels Desktop adds a new option for ‘reclaiming’ unused disk space on virtual machines in order to keep them as compact as possible.

Enterprise Edition

Reflecting Parallels’ increased focus on business users, the program is also available in a special Enterprise Edition. This is available with volume licensing, and provides additional features that allow IT managers to control the configuration and deployment of virtual machines within their organisation. There’s also a Parallels Server Edition that is specifically designed for use with Apple’s Mac Mini Server. However, Parallels is being a bit coy about pricing for the Server and Enterprise Edition, so you’ll need to enquire via its Web site.

Business users will also appreciate the Parallels Mobile app for iPhone and iPad that provides remote access and control for both Windows virtual machines and the main Mac operating system. It’s a little annoying, though, that this costs extra―currently on sale for £2.99, but apparently due to rise to about £10 in the near future.

The real thing

Running Windows on a virtual machine on a Mac will never be as fast as using an actual PC―or BootCamp on a Mac―but if your Mac has plenty of memory and a recent multi-core Intel processor then a Parallels virtual machine really can perform well enough for day-to-day use. The attention to detail that Parallels Desktop displays in its efforts to smoothly integrate the Mac and Windows environments is also very impressive, and gives it a slight edge over its main rival, VMWare Fusion.

In fact our only real complaint is that at £77.64 for the standard single-user version, Parallels Desktop 8 is almost twice the price of Fusion 5. Admittedly, it is the slicker and more polished of the two programs and well worth the price for people who are going to be using Windows software on their Mac every day. Even so, Fusion is no slouch when it comes to running Windows virtual machines on a Mac, and is an affordable, alternative option for more casual use of Windows software.

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